It was 1960 when the opening of the UN General Assembly last grasped the attention of the world's audience. Amidst the Cold War fog, leaders from across the globe descended on Midtown Manhattan for their shot in the spotlight of the world's stage. The star-studded cast included the usual U.S.-Soviet suspects as well as the sexy renegades of the era, leaders from the new nations of the freshly decolonized Global South. From India's Nehru to Yugoslavia's Tito, the looming superpowers both courted and villainized these emerging characters, licking their lips at the possibility of proxy-loyalty and offering the narrow option of the carrot or the stick.
Despite this binary Cold War paradigm, the rising chorus of the Non-Aligned Movement struck an aggravating chord among the superpowers. The Movement demanded independence from the neocolonial taste of encroaching U.S. and Soviet interests, articulated and then orated by a number of the world's charismatic leaders of the day. The most notorious of these "pests," Egypt's wildly popular President Gamal Abdul Nasser, sipped tea with the superpowers before stepping out for cigars with Fidel Castro, Malcolm X, and other colorful Cold War-characters. Despite this momentum from unexpected poles, however, try as they may, both allied and independent nations were forced to acknowledge the elephant in the room in September of 1960: the upcoming American presidential election between Kennedy and Nixon.
Archival Footage of UN Week, starring Khrushchev, Castro, Eisenhower, Nasser, Nehru, and Dag Hammarskjold
According to the UN Department of Public Information, this year's Opening Session of the UN General Assembly counted the highest number of heads of state since 1960. Despite the passage of time, as the intoxicating parade of politicians and UN officials engulfed Manhattan this month, it was impossible to ignore the parallels with UNGAs of past. From the Security Council stand-offs between the world's superpowers, to the Global South's calls for structural reform, to the worldwide apprehension regarding the American presidential elections, the speeches of this year's 67th session echoed the discourse of decades past. Yet, today's departure undoubtedly lies in the growing cynicism surrounding the politics of the UN action, a healthy skepticism that has replaced former optimism and accrued increasingly with each failure over the past 50 years.
The civilian carnage in Syria marks the latest of these failures.
As the spectacle of UN Week commenced against the backdrop of Syrian bloodshed, a discussion of structural UN reform could not be more timely. The UN General Assembly already voted overwhelmingly to condemn the Assad regime, yet challenges from permanent members, Russia and China, prevented any resolution from proceeding to action. Though Russia's arms industry plays a role in this dynamic, Russia and China have cited NATO's perceived escalation of the UN mandate in Libya (from peace-keeping to regime-change) as grounds for suspicion of Western intentions in Syria. In August, former UN Secretary General and Special Envoy to Syria, Kofi Annan, resigned in frustration with the failure of the Syrian government to adhere to the UN's proposed peace plan. His resignation was only to be followed by a hopeless report from his replacement, Algerian statesman Lakhdar Brahimi, at the beginning on the Opening Session. As the situation surrounding Syria illustrates, the politics of the Security Council deprives the UN of its ability to fulfill its obligation to civilians around the world.
"I feel like we're back in the Cold War on the Syria situation," explains UN spokesperson, Stephane Dujarric in a recent conversation during UN Week. "You have Russia and China on one side, the Western powers on the other, and no end to this stalemate in sight. Situations like these illuminate the need for structural reform at the UN."
Since its establishment, a battle over systemic reform of the UN, particularly surrounding the P5, the five permanent members of the Security Council that hold veto power, has been waged unsuccessfully by a number of players. Countries like India, Brazil, Argentina, South Africa, Japan, and Germany have heightened their calls for a more democratic UN political system over the past decade, emphasizing their large populations, their economic emergence, and their regional representation as sources of legitimacy. Disagreements in the direction of reform, however, have posed the most significant barriers to progress on this front.
"The services of the UN are primarily directed at communities in the Global South and yet not a single P5 member state is from Africa for example," notes Dujarric.
In this respect and others, a more representative Security Council would not only strengthen the legitimacy of the UN as an institution, but would also enhance its ability to properly serve communities trapped in poverty and conflict. Civilian devastation in Syria and other countries of the Global South highlight both the need and opportunity for this type of discussion.
"A major question we grapple with is the meaning of the UN Charter," reflects Dujarric. "It begins 'We the Peoples of the United Nations...' Is this an obligation to the peoples of the world or the nations? If we agree it's an obligation to the peoples, how do we deal with the politics of nations that deny civilians their rights?"
With the world's attention quickly shifting from UN Week to America's 2012 election, the future of multilateral diplomacy and international democracy remains bleak. Will the world's growing skepticism toward UN (in)action galvanize the movement for structural reform? Or will another 50 years pass, further cementing the UN as an institution of global hegemony in place of its ideals of global democracy? This year's ongoing civilian tragedy in Syria suggests its time for the former, and, in the spirit the peoples of the United Nations, now is the time to infuse a sense of urgency into righting these structural wrongs.
Anna Therese Day is an independent journalist, specializing in the Middle East & North Africa politics and global civil society. Follow her on the ground next week in Syria on Twitter at @AnnaOfArabia & Facebook.com/AnnaThereseDay.